Those into Asian and Middle Eastern art know all about the currently-closed Freer Gallery of Art and its partner, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.
During a tour of the Freer’s renovations, Director Julian Raby spoke about many changes for the classic Italian-Renaissance building on the National Mall. The museum will re-open with a bang on October 14.
He spoke of taking it in a new direction and refreshing “what we offer in the building.” Raby emphasized that they were eager to “bring back the original aesthetic of the building. This is about taking it back.”
Charles Lang Freer was a Detroit magnate who, in 1905, proposed donating his Asia and South Asia collection to the Smithsonian, which initially rejected it since they were concentrating on science. Despite this, the Freer Gallery became the first building of the Smithsonian system for fine art opening in 1923. The white-stone building is built around an open-air courtyard which include sculptures and a fountain. The museum houses Freer’s collections including screens, scrolls, jade and his extensive collection of artist James McNeill Whistler paintings, letters and drawings, and the very popular “Peacock Room.”
One of the Freer’s new directions is the use of the museum’s display space. Instead of long-standing exhibits, “every single one of these galleries…will be treated like a mini-exhibition; what’s the big idea, what’s the hook title, what are the highlight objects, and how do we talk about these objects for a relevance for today,” says Raby.
The original terrazzo floors from 1923 have been “revealed” and cleaned. Raby said, “The (Eugene and Agnes E.) Meyer auditorium is historical… and (has gone) from analog age” to the “digital age. We can simulcast. We can beam into other institutions.” He has kept the original seats to “insure the almost perfect sound quality” of the auditorium the same.
Some members of the Freer have already moved back in. “The conservation department is now in their digs,” said Raby as a woman with a cart holding a mother-of-pearl Asian box moved through the crowd.
While the walls are repainted, the new slate baseboards are still missing since they are “stuck in Customs,” says Raby.
It’s is not only the galleries that will be overhauled. Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art, spoke about the “most popular, the most visited” gallery.
The green and gold-gilt Peacock Room with its extensive collection of pottery is “installed exactly the way he installed them in 1908.” Freer loved things with iridescence on them, and acquired one of the most extensive collections of ceramics in 1907. One is “so covered with iridescent it’s difficult to see.”
Interestingly enough, in light of contemporary events, some of the antique ceramics comes from Raqqa in Syria, the self-styled capital of the Islamic State.
Glazer also spoke of a new acquisition drive to buy more blue and white porcelain of the period to “recreate the chock-a-block massing of the Victorian original” display. If they can’t get contemporary pieces, they may do “3-d” clones of objects in the collection, in the hope that someone might donate an original to replace the clone. Raby joked it was part of the “adopt a pot” campaign.
Two small bronze statures, by August Saint-Gaudens, better known from the monument to the Civil War’s 54th Regiment in Boston and the Henry Adams’ funeral homage to his wife, will be reinstalled in the courtyard after being cleaned using new techniques. Using dry ice blasting to take off the aged wax coatings, Labor Supported by Science and Art, and its partner, Law Supported by Power and Love, will be re-coated with thin layers of wax, gently buffed, and then re-installed.
Finally, the two massive 14th century wooden Guardians will return to guard the corridors. Raby said that he’d always wanted to have a kids sleepover Night at the Museum-style “with the Guardians coming to light at midnight. ” He added with a smile, “Spooky.”